How many major motion pictures can you name where a branch of the Armed Services gets top billing? By that, I mean one that is not a documentary?
Jet Pilot does just that. Check out the movie poster below. The opening credits of the movie bear it out, too. After the Universal logo we get scenes of jets spinning in the air with the words “Starring John Wayne… Janet Leigh… and the United States Air Force”.
And to be honest, that’s the best part of the movie, the Air Force. Although Jet Pilot is not near as bad as The Conqueror, coupled with the latter it ought to have proved to Wayne and everyone else that Howard Hughes was not the ideal boss to work for. But then I guess Wayne could be forgiven on some level because part of the reasons for making the two films was that he was sucking up for funds to finance the film of his dreams, The Alamo.
With up around 200 appearances in film and television over the span of his 50 year career in Hollywood, there are bound to be a few duds of course. (Personally, although I am a huge fan, most of the westerns he made in his early days before, and just after, Stagecoach are pretty much interchangeable). But Wayne’s experience with Howard Hughes seems to be the low point of his oeuvre.
The story is what hampers the movie more than anything else. For one thing, the movie was actually filmed in 1950, when jet planes were hot stuff, but by the time Hughes had quit screwing around with the film in 1957, jets were becoming passe. That and the plotline becomes rather lame. Even Wayne himself admitted that it was a silly movie. Which just goes to show what happens when you want to make a political statement but don’t bother to get the right people behind you. Howard Hughes was a brilliant businessman, to be sure. He just should have stayed in the office and let the people who knew what they were doing run the film industry side of it.
Janet Leigh and John Wayne do have a little chemistry which makes it a better than the pairing of Wayne with Hayward in the aforementioned The Conqueror. Can’t say I actually believe Leigh as a pilot, or for that matter as a Russian (the producers didn’t even bother to have any of the actors and actresses playing Russians use a fake accent — James Bond it’s not, but still if you aren’t paying attention you may not know which country the characters are supposed to be in). I did have a hard time accepting Wayne falling in love with a Communist soldier (not Wayne’s character, Wayne himself). If it had been any less virulent of an actor I might have fell for it more.
Watch this movie for the very good scenes of aerial photography and as a window into the early age of jet engine technology. As I stated in my review of The Conqueror, you could probably just as easily turn off the sound and make up your own dialogue.
By the way, Chuck Yeager supposedly is one of the Air Force pilots you see flying those jets.
Jet Pilot (1957):
In the Alaskan frontier, an Air Force base detects the invasion into American air space of a Soviet jet plane. After forcing it to land, they discover that the pilot is a woman, Anna Marladovna (Janet Leigh). Col. Jim Shannon (John Wayne) is assigned to scope her out and figure out just what she is up to.
Eventually over the course of a few days (or weeks or months; it all depends on how believable you think it is for a man to fall in love with a woman he just barely met), Shannon does fall for Anna. Although he acts like a typical shy gallant hero — no hanky panky before marriage, no sir! At one point when her orders he to take off some of her outer gear, he is flabbergasted when she is on the verge of stripping naked in front of him.
The brass has the ultimate say in what is going to happen to Anna. Ultimately, it turns out, Anna is a spy. She has been sent over by the Soviets to see what she can divulge from the Americans, without giving away any secrets the Soviets might have to which she’d be privileged. When her subterfuge is uncovered, Shannon determines that the only way to save her from being deported is to marry her.
But the brass determines that they will jail her instead, since they can get away with that. She is an American citizen now. But Shannon still has an ace up his sleeve. On the pretext of taking Anna to authorities south and east of Alaska he instead heads north and west. Into Siberia. Yes, that’s right, the notorious Communist-hating Wayne defected. All because of the love of a woman. (OK, maybe I can see that…)
Of course, now that he’s in Russian territory its “the shoe is on the other foot” and Russian authorities are trying to get Shannon to reveal secrets of the Americans. Well, he may be thinking with his genitalia, but that doesn’t mean he’s stupid. There is no point in trying to avoid the spoiler alert, but then if you know John Wayne the actor and his politics you ALREADY know how the movie HAS to end anyway. Or at least you know the spoiler alert… Shannon doesn’t stay in Russia. But I will leave you with something to watch to see how he manages to get away from the crack superior Russian Air Force.
Jim Brymer, AKA Quiggy, runs the movie blog The Midnite Drive-In, check it out for more insights on other classic films.